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‘From October 29 to November 3, Hurricane Mitch dropped historic amounts of rainfall in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, with unofficial reports of up to 75 inches… Nearly 11,000 people were killed with over 11,000 left missing by the end of 1998. Additionally, roughly 2.7 million were left homeless.’
Hurricane Harvey is likewise turning into a mainly rainfall event for Houston and its environs, but at this time the death toll in the face of extensive and massive flooding and precipitation close to that of Mitch stands at 10. Even if that increases disproportionately, nothing will take it anywhere near the 11,000 death toll from Mitch.
Current estimates (probably low) are that 30,000 will be left homeless by Harvey compared to the 2.7 million by Mitch. (On the other hand, the property damage from Harvey will be far, far greater than that from Mitch. Hope the insurance companies can manage.)
While no two hurricanes are exactly alike, these differences are largely due to economic, political and infrastructural conditions. The wealthier the economy and the more sophisticated the physical and social infrastructures and the information streams, the better protected populations are from traumatic human losses, even when the property damage is far greater.
Natural disasters are social and class events.
This becomes even clearer when the differential distributional impacts within a hurricane or earthquake event are put under the microscope. With Katrina, it was the poor and the marginalised (largely African-Americans) in New Orleans who died or were left destitute.
Such marginalised populations typically live in more vulnerable areas with lower property values, inferior information, unreliable infrastructures and fewer social protections (such as insurance). Rescue operations and emergency life and fiscal supports typically reach such populations last (if at all).
Analogously, the hurricane that swept through property markets in the USA in 2007-8 likewise dispossessed low-income black and Hispanic populations of roughly two thirds of their asset values, while wealthier white populations were less affected. It will be interesting to see the data on differential impacts on Houston as time elapses.
Developers and their allies in finance and state governments typically race ahead with their projects in cities like Houston with as little concern for environmental impacts and vulnerabilities as possible. Resurfacing the city space with tarmac and concrete changes run-off and drainage conditions. These have huge impacts when a hurricane finally arrives (as New York also found with Sandy).
But wait! There is a solution! The up-scale post-Sandy condo being built across the way from me on the East River front of Manhattan has emergency equipment located on the 48th floor. It is designed to be self-sufficient in the event of a hurricane for at least a week, and to keep refrigerators and phone chargers working indefinitely. Sacrificing the income from that 48th story penthouse is worthwhile, says the developer, given the premium residents will pay to continue their daily life in the building unfazed by any hurricane.
Recovery is rarely designed to remedy the inequalities of impacts. It often makes matters worse. If the hurricane destroys housing and property on otherwise valuable land then in swoop the developers with up-scale projects to replace low-income but affordable residential neighbourhoods or traditional small-business industrial districts. If, as is usually the case, the social bonds that contributed to social life in the face of mass impoverishment are destroyed by displacement of low-income populations, then too bad.
For the more mobile rich this does not matter since their social bonds are not those of neighbourhood and locality. The economics of disaster capitalism, as Naomi Klein points out, are well entrenched in our political economy. ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ is a motto that capital applies to hurricanes and earthquakes just as it does to economic crises.
In the times of hurricanes and other such events, however, populations typically look to government and the state to take care of problems as efficiently as possible. The perpetual critique of the ‘oppressive’ capitalist (but always called ‘socialist’) state suddenly turns into a demand that it exercise its paternal functions efficiently and well. This was a test that President Bush Jnr failed most miserably with Katrina. It cost him a lot politically.
So here is the residual question that is currently hitting the newspaper headlines in the USA: ‘Is Trump ready for Harvey?’ We shall soon see.
David Harvey’s latest book, Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason, is published by Profile Books. He will be speaking on capitalism and technology at The World Transformed in Brighton in September.
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament